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To realise Labor's founding ideals, we need reciprocity and economic reform

By Mark Latham - posted Friday, 26 September 2003

It is said that Ben Chifley, when asked about the best part of one of his trips to Europe, replied, "The sight of Bathurst as I rounded Brown's Hill".

First and foremost, Ben Chifley was a citizen of Bathurst. He believed in the value of localism, so much so that, even as Prime Minister of Australia, he continued to serve on the Abercrombie Shire Council. He believed in the importance of community and social solidarity.

Chifley also believed in economic aspiration and achievement, for himself and for the nation. It is true that Chifley did not have the benefit of a formal education in his childhood - indeed, he liked to say that he would have given a million pounds to have the educational opportunities of Dr Evatt - but Chifley was no unlettered hod-carrier.


Chifley had an extraordinary hunger for learning and self-help. As a young man he attended classes at the Workers' Educational Association and Bathurst Tech for four nights a week. He had books shipped from Sydney, reading Plutarch and Gibbons and subscribing to the Bathurst School of Arts, with its library of 20,000 volumes. Later, having worked as an engine driver, he lectured in technical subjects at the Railway Institute.

I regard Chifley's background as quintessentially Labor, by the standards of his time and mine. He was a Labor man because he was earthy but also ambitious. He was prepared to see politics as a career, not just for its private benefits but overwhelmingly as a means of serving the working people of this land.

We have got what Chifley wanted us to have: a better education than our parents and grandparents before us. And we are using it, as Chifley used his skills in public life, for the betterment of working people.

Courage of our convictions

Chifley gave his life to the Labor movement. He was a man of commitment, a man of conviction. That's what he meant by the light on the hill: Labor believes in social justice and we will always fight for our beliefs.

Without a structured set of beliefs a political party will simply fall over. It will lack the ballast and direction that comes from principled ideas. At the end of the day, politicians who believe in nothing are likely to do anything.

Too often since 1996 people have said to me: what are the differences between Labor and Liberal? Now the answers are clear:

  • Health policy, we want to save Medicare and restore bulk-billing. Only Labor believes in public health care and without public health care there can be no Medicare.
  • In education policy, we want to restore affordability and accessibility. The Liberals believe in a system with $150,000 university degrees. Labor believes in a different policy: one by which bright kids from public housing estates can get a good education, all the way to a higher education.
  • On the environment, we want to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and save Australia's grand old river system through the Murray-Darling Riverbank.
  • In telecommunications, the Government wants to sell off Telstra, while Labor believes the public interest is best served by majority public ownership.
  • In economic policy, we believe in competitive capitalism: open and productive markets backed by high levels of public investment in education and training. The Coalition, by contrast, believes in crony capitalism, the sort of special deals and policy rorts we saw recently in the ethanol industry.
  • In international affairs, we don't want a world in which one country has all the power. We want Australia to have an independent foreign policy: building a world based on power sharing and cooperation, a world that recognises the importance of the United States but also Asia, the European Union and the United Nations. Labor's foreign policy? It's made in Australia.
  • Finally, we want to restore the public's trust and confidence in democracy itself. This is why Labor has announced an ambitious agenda for modernising Australia's constitution and political system. It's time for honesty and transparency in public life.

John Howard: he can't handle the truth. He finds it hard to be frank with the Australian people. There is always something he never tells us. From kids overboard, to the war in Iraq, to the ethanol scandal, to the true state of the Australian economy - there is always a missing piece to the puzzle.

Higher taxes and charges are forcing families deeper into debt. They are also taking away the incentive to work hard in our society. Nearly one million Australian families face effective marginal tax rates of 60 per cent or higher. That is, for every dollar of extra earnings, they lose at least 60 cents to the Government. The disincentives for low-income families are even worse. The harder people work, the more likely they are to fall into the top marginal tax rate of 48.5 per cent (for incomes over $62,500). Yet for the owners of companies and capital, paying more than 30 per cent is optional.

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The Light on the Hill" speech given on September 20, 2003 in Bathurst.

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About the Author

Mark Latham is the former Leader of the Opposition and former federal Labor Member for Werriwa (NSW).

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